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Illuminating the holidays



I spent my junior high and high school days in New Mexico. One of the treats of living in the Land of Enchantment is the centuries-old tradition of luminarias at Christmastime.

You'll note that I didn't say "luminaries." Luminaries, as anyone knows, are the vaguely-famous people who populate telethons and Vegas ballrooms. Whenever I see an advertisement offering "luminary kits for $5," I always wonder if my set will feature Lola Falana or David Lee Roth--or, if I'm really lucky, both.

The really funny thing about our local use of "luminaries" is that in New Mexico there is also serious dispute about what term to use. Folks in the northern mountains (Santa Fe, Taos and the like) are more likely to call them "farolitos," which means "little lanterns." People in the rest of the state (anywhere from Gallup to Albuquerque to Roswell) prefer "luminarias." The word "luminarias" just means "lights," though the word also refers to a 16th-century New Mexican Christmas tradition of lighting a series of small bonfires along a road or along paths leading to a house (something like a line of lighthouses along the coast, I suppose). The lines of disagreement between the "luminarias" and "farolitos" camps are fairly sharp and pointed, not unlike the rather feisty (and tasty) argument about barbecue in these here parts. And like the North Carolina barbecue wars, the term that's used is not as important as respecting the tradition itself.

The Triangle is becoming increasingly Hispanic, with Durham leading the way. And while most of these newcomers have no knowledge of the luminarias tradition--as far as I've been able to ascertain, the idea of putting candles in small bags half-filled with sand originated in the area that is now New Mexico and really hasn't spread back into the "old country"--the practice did begin in what was then Mexico. It evolved in the early 19th century as a local adaptation of the Christmas lighting traditions of American immigrants, who often lit up their houses with Chinese lanterns or other bright lamps. And now luminarias can be found everywhere in the U.S., a true American-Hispanic-American tradition.

It's time we accepted this and began to use the proper term. I'm willing to forego my fantasy of unwrapping Wayne Newton in my "luminary" kit in exchange for the usage of a more authentic term. While it's true that "farolitos" sounds cooler, I believe that we ought to go with "luminarias" to avoid utter confusion. This way we only have to change an "e" to an "a." Simpler is better.

And while luminarias (or farolitos) were first used to commemorate Christmas, it's not much of a stretch to use them as part of a more general winter holiday celebration. The tradition of luminarias during the holiday season is a wonderful one, and I'm glad that it has arrived here to become a beautiful symbol of the melting pot that is the Triangle.

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